Philip Roth
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
< [We reviewed Nemesis in our Spring 2011 issue.
But our reviewer has had second thoughts, and
asked us to permit him to amend, if not
completely alter, his view of the book.]

This is all about Bucky Cantor, of Newark, one of many young people who came down with polio in the summer of 1944. We learn here what happens to him and his life during World War Two America.

Roth paints a glorious portrait of that gilded age of so many years ago. The lively neighborhoods where there were trolley-cars and storefront grocers and butchers and five-and-dimes, where tee-shirted men lounged about in the yard while the boys played stepball and the girls jumped rope at the side of the Weequahic playground, singing out as they played:

    A, my name is Agnes
    And my husband's name is Alphonse,
    We come from Alabama
    And we bring back apples!

    K, my name is Kay
    And my husband's name is Karl,
    We come from Kansas
    And we bring back kangaroos!

Bucky Cantor is a 23-year-old P. E. instructor in the playground. On top of that, he's loyal, strong, brave, true ... a real boy scout, with, we are told, "ideals of courage and sacrifice." He started out poor, stayed in school despite all odds, has terrible vision (which is why he's not fighting the war alongside his buddies). But with singular will he becomes a superb athlete: basketball, diving, swimming, running, baseball, javelin. The kids there in Weequahic Park and at Indian Hill Camp adore him.

Alas, we learn that Bucky is a "healthy infected carrier" of the polio virus. Many of the young men who work with him that summer become sick; some of them die. This sporting hero turns out to be a virtual Typhoid Mary. Mid-summer, he takes sick himself, goes into the hospital, loses the use of much of his body. And, apparently, his mind.

Philip Roth is a savagely good writer. In his novels before Nemesis, he has given us deliciously acid shots of mid-20th century American lives, with all their fakery --- characters that are funny, scathing, tender, and sad. And, among them, a host of losers.

In an earlier review of Nemesis --- this is my umpteenth rewrite on this aggravating book --- I wrote that "this disability business has infected Roth, made him ill in a way we never thought possible: it has turned him into a big bore."

"What's with him? [I wrote.] Doesn't he get it? Disease and disability and body-loss can be a terrible bore. But there are other sides to it."

    If someone were to ask me to tell them what being a crip has been like for all these years, I'd probably say that it was uncomfortable if not disconcerting. It can be tedious, messy, and a pain-in-the-ass (literally). However there are and can be bizarre compensations.

"We have to learn to be masters of a new world, thrust on us willy-nilly. We have to figure out how to get around without falling on our faces. We have to teach ourselves how to get in and out of bathrooms and bedrooms and buses and bars and cars and trains and planes built solely for Walkies."

    On top of that [I concluded], we have to learn to deal with those people --- the temporarily abled --- who don't have a clue to what it is like to live with a brand new body that appeared, so dramatically, in some cases, overnight. In our new disguise, we may appear to our families, to our old friends, to the world --- as different, vulnerable, desperately in need of help --- but we don't want them to use this either for us or against us. It's a tight squeeze for us out there in Realityland.

§     §     §

Almost all of Nemesis shows Buddy Cantor as an inspiring athlete, a courageous person, "a heroic human ideal." Then in the last few pages, with his paralysis, he goes through a metamorphosis. A man who has been noble, strong and true turns into what some might think of as a self-pitying caricature. He insists on calling himself "disfigured and maimed." He even says that he is now "confined to a wheelchair." Gack.

He drives his ex-girlfriend Marcia away by saying, "Marry a man who isn't maimed ... Most women would be delighted if a cripple volunteered to get out of their life." As a final insult, there are other disabled friends that Bucky reconnects with. There's Arnie, who Bucky may have infected --- he got sick when he was 12. When he gets back to school, "The girls pitied me and the boys avoided me. I was always sitting brooding on the sidelines."

There's Arnie's college roommate, Pomerantz. He was "physically far worse off than I was." He was also "a brilliant scholarship student, high school valedictorian, pre-med genius." But in his first year in medical school he kills himself. The message: You're a crip, you use your brain to get yourself up the ladder --- and then the horror of it all sweeps over you and you commit suicide. Spare me.

I wrote: "Roth has tried to put himself into the head of a disabled person. Bad choice. As a Walkie, he can't know, cannot begin to know the smell or taste or feel of it. He won't, at least for awhile, because he is still among what we call 'the temporarily abled.'"

Apparently, I was not the only one who thought that Roth had blown it in this, his 30th novel. In last November's London Review of Books, Tim Parks treated the disability element gingerly --- most other reviewers side-stepped the issue entirely --- but offered the intriguing idea that the title Nemesis "hangs over the book, inviting the reader to interpret events in the light of Greek tragedy and in particular the grim goddess who made sure that nobody would challenge the authority of the gods."

    But so brazenly are we thrust towards this textbook enigma [Parks concluded] that readers may find themselves more intrigued by the author's loyalty to tired literary stratagems than interested in the fate of the characters who were never much more than pieces on a chessboard.

§     §     §

Still, all along, something had been nagging at me about Nemesis, and my take on it. I've been reading Roth all these years, starting with one of my great favorites, Portnoy's Complaint, a paean of praise for, if you will, masturbation.

I found myself thinking that Roth was just too cagey to miss the boat on this or any other character or plot he dreams up. What if he's got something else going here? After all, he's a master contrarian. At any one time, 90 percent of the Jews of America seem to be thoroughly infuriated with him (although he's Jewish himself). They complain that he is airing their dirty sheets in public.

What, I'm wondering, if Roth has chosen to create one of the most reprehensible characters that you could devise in contemporary American literature? What if he has decided to create the complete antithesis: a star athlete who becomes paralyzed ... and simply gives up?

What could be more un-American than that? A hero who loses it all and then does not turn himself into another Roosevelt or another Christopher Reeve or all those other people that you and I read about forever and a day on television and in the newspapers and magazines (including this one).

What would it be like if the author presented us with a guy who doesn't overcome all odds; one who says, I'm disabled ... and it stinks. In fact, he says, my family and old friends and lovers should get the hell out of the way because I've been blasted to the very core. Anyone who wants to love me is stupid. They have no idea what I'm like now. I got a new body and I can no longer run and play football and do high-dives and throw the javelin and it's the shits and anyone who wants to tell me otherwise might as well shut up. I'm going to live the rest of my life alone, in my dingy garret, working a stupid job ... and if you don't like it, you can just shove it.

Roth has waited until the very last 40 pages to give us the new real-life Bucky Cantor: an absolute loser; a big boor.

And, thus, he has done it again. Roth has given us a truly unpalatable character ... who no one can stand.

Not even the author.

Certainly not me.

Whatta work of art!

--- - L. W. Milam
This review appeared
in slightly different form in
New Mobility magazine.

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